Woyzeck on the Highveld | Handspring Puppet CompanyGeorg Büchner never completed his last play, Woyzeck. Büchner, one of the most brilliant German playwrights, was born in 1813 and died prematurely at the age of 23. The fact that Büchner only left behind some fragments of his Woyzeck hasn’t been a problem since it was first published in 1879. Even fragmented, and maybe because of that, Woyzeck is a beautiful but sad play, which has become one of the masterpieces of 19th century Theatre.

Presented for the first time 15 years ago and renamed Woyzeck on the Highveld, Büchner’s play is the first collaboration between the South African director William Kentridge and the Handspring Puppet Company, formed by artists also from South Africa. Woyzeck on the Highveld is undoubtedly one of the most important works presented at the 20th Unima Congress & World Puppetry Festival program. Before coming to Perth, the play crossed the world for many years. The company had even decided to sell the puppets, because they didn’t want to become a “one play company”. However, when the Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Unima’s organizers, invited them to participate in this year’s World Puppetry Festival they couldn’t resist, so they gave life once more to the puppets and restaged the play with a few changes.

Originally, the central character of the play, Woyzeck, is a German soldier in the early 1800s, but since the play was written, he has assumed many faces. Woyzeck can still be a soldier, but also a poor man working in a mine or, as in the South African production, a migrant worker in the Johannesburg of the fifties. Whatever he is, it doesn’t matter, because the core of the play, its soul, is always the same central question: what are the limits of a man who has been abused by his doctor, his chief and even more terribly, by his wife?

As he wrote in the program, William Kentridge decided to use puppetry and animation in his Woyzeck because both are short, fragmented forms, like the unfinished play itself. It makes perfect sense, especially taking into consideration the splendid result he had. As they gave life to puppets, Woyzeck characters turned out to be even more heartbreaking than they were in the original play. The use of animations, projected onto a screen at the stage’s background, also made the play more sinister, and at the same time more cinematic. The animations provide the audience with the impression that the characters are actually walking from one scenario to another. The result is a sad and dark performance and even when Mncedisi Shabangu, as the master of ceremony, tries to make the audience laugh of Woyzeck’s terrible life, it’s a sad and hopeless smile that appears.

The puppeteers and especially the three actors are wonderful. Mncedisi Shabangu’s master of ceremony is fun and at the same time terrible. Busi Zokufa, as Woyzeck’s wife, does a good job, and Louis Seboko, as Woyzeck, is an absolute heartbreaker. Although their voices and acts construct the characters, the puppets are responsible for the most beautiful moments. Designed and made by Adrian Kohler, they are impressive as they look like actual human beings in miniature, reflecting perfectly each character’s role in the play. For instance, the puppet representing a miner is particularly strong and terrible, just as the character must be, whereas the Woyzeck puppet looks sick and tired.

I couldn’t say it was a pleasant experience, because Woyzeck is not pleasant, but Woyzeck on the Highveld is so well designed and plastic that made the night really worth it.

Handspring Puppet Company
Woyzeck on the Highveld

Playhouse Theatre
When: Tue 8 - Sat 12 @ 7:30pm
Matinee: Sat 12 @ 2:15pm
Duration: 90 minutes (no interval)
Price: Concession: $58, Full: $68
Bookings: BOCS: (08) 9484 1133 | Tickets available on the door, unless sold out prior to the event

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